Archive for February, 2008

Into That Silent Sea, Francis French and Colin Burgess

February 16, 2008

Subtitled Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961 – 1965, this book covers the early US and Soviet space programmes, focusing specifically on the manned space missions. It opens with Yuri Gagarin‘s historic flight, covers Project Mercury, and then both the Soviet Vostok and Voskhod missions. A detailed biography is given of each astronaut or cosmonaut as they are introduced. There are also a great many anecdotes by those who were present during the events being described. The authors clearly used a large number of materials in their research – the bibliography is thirteen pages long! – as well as interviewing many of the personalities involved.

Like many books on this subject, the tone of Into That Silent Sea initially seemed a little too in awe of its subject. Anyone named was the best at what they did, the astronauts were near-superhuman, and nobody ever made any mistakes. However, as the book progressed, the authors seemed to have gained more confidence in their material and Into That Silent Sea became more objective.

Perhaps where Into That Silent Sea was most interesting and useful was when discussing those astronauts and cosmonauts of the early Space Race who have not been the subjects of many other books. Into That Silent Sea is especially good on the early cosmonauts; and astronauts Wally Schirra and Gordo Cooper are treated with more detail than the better-documented John Glenn, Al Shepard or Gus Grissom.

There is also an interesting diversion on the Mercury 13 – thirteen female pilots who underwent the same medical tests as the Mercury astronauts, believing that NASA was intent on forming a female astronaut squad. French and Burgess are quite critical of Jerrie Cobb, the most vocal of the Mercury 13, but they did appear to me to be a little too forgiving of the government’s and NASA’s role in the affair.

There is a wealth of material available on the early American and Soviet manned space flights, treated both singly and together. So any new book on the subject needs something extra to stand above the rest. I don’t know that Into That Silent Sea possesses that quality. It’s certainly an informative read and, given the ground it covers, contains an impressive amount of detail. As an overview, or introduction, to the subject, it’s very effective. If you want to read further, there are plenty of books on specific areas covered by Into That Silent Sea – Jamie Doran & Piers Bizony’s Starman on Yuri Gagarin, for example; Neal Thompson’s Light This Candle on Al Shepard (see here); John Glenn‘s own autobiography; The Mercury Thirteen by Martha Ackmann…

I will say one thing very much in Into That Silent Sea‘s favour. There has been over the last two decades a worrying trend in biographical and non-fiction works in which authors “fictionalise” their subjects. In other words, they “imagine” how the person they are writing about might have reacted to a situation, or what that person might have been thinking at a specific point in time. To me, that completely invalidates the work. It’s no longer factual. Admittedly, a biographical work cannot be an entirely objective account of a person, no matter how it tries. Some subjectivity is sure to creep in. It’s the nature of the enterprise. French and Burgess, however, are careful in Into That Silent Sea only to report only what their research has told them. If they mention a person’s thoughts, then they use a direct quote from that person – i.e., the authors have the person themselves describe how they felt, what they were thinking.

There are those who will always be more interested in the personalities of the Space Race, and those whose chief interest lies in the hardware. I must admit I fall mostly into the latter camp. Which means books such as Into That Silent Sea are never going to be a favourite. But I did find this book a readable and interesting treatment of its subject. Recommended.

Into That Silent Sea, Francis French and Colin Burgess (2007, University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 978-0-8032-1146-9, 383 pp)